What does the 1997 collapse of the Thai baht have to do with a street fair in Chicago? A lot, according to Arisa Narin, secretary to the consul general of the Royal Thai Consulate, which is hosting a festival celebrating Thai culture–its first–on August 15. “The festival was an idea that started several years ago, and we finally received the budget for it this year from the government,” she says. “We’re just starting to come back from our financial crisis in 1997.”

Many Chicagoans’ knowledge of Thai culture begins and ends at the restaurant door. One reason for this is the absence of a “Thaitown” or “Little Thailand.” In Chicago, though approximately 30,000 people of Thai descent live in the Chicago area, according to Narin, “the community is scattered.”

Unlike some other immigrant groups, most of the Thai emigres who arrived in the U.S. between 20 and 30 years ago weren’t poor. Narin’s parents, like many of their generation, came to the States as part of the Asian brain drain of the 70s and early 80s, when the U.S. provided immigration incentives to doctors, nurses, and other skilled professionals. Narin, who was three when her parents arrived from Bangkok in 1981, notes that there’s been no repeat of the incentive, and no second wave of Thai immigration to the U.S.

Narin’s mother was a nurse and, after a divorce in the late 80s (after which Narin’s father moved back to Thailand), a single mother. They were the only Thai family in Jefferson Park, but they weren’t completely alone–Narin had cousins here whom she saw regularly, and her grandmother came over from Thailand to live with her and her mother.

Narin went to school at Immaculate Heart of Mary (near Irving and Kimball) during the week and to Wat Dhammaram, a Thai Buddhist temple at 75th and Sayre, for Sunday and summer school. “They’d have teachers from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and they would come here and teach us Thai,” she says. “You know, you’re not really exposed growing up here to Thai games or Thai nursery rhymes or stuff like that, so it was a good way for me to learn and keep my roots.” Wat Dhammaram also offered courses in traditional Thai dance and music. Narin learned how to do the “fingernail dance,” in which six-inch-long brass nails are worn and the parts of the body that don’t move are as compelling to watch as those that do.

Most of Narin’s extended family still lives in Thailand, and she visits every few years. “Chicago’s like home but, well, Thailand is also like home. The first couple of visits you can’t get your bearings straight, ’cause it is such a culture shock. You go to a totally different place.”

Many professionals of her mother’s generation are retiring now, Narin says, and opening up restaurants and other businesses. At the festival there’ll be merchants displaying Thai wares as well as restaurateurs. A prominent aspect of shopping in Thailand–haggling–won’t necessarily be encouraged but, Narin says, “You can try. It doesn’t hurt to try.”

The free Thai Festival will be held from 11 AM to 8 PM on Friday, August 15, outside Saint James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron (across the street from the consulate). It’ll feature demonstrations of cooking, fruit and vegetable carving, classical music and dancing, and vendors selling handicrafts and food. Call 312-664-3129 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre J. Jackson.